Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

Yesterday was the perfect day to read. Lovely summer weather, not much else to do. And Tamarama Beach just calling out to me like it was going out of fashion. So I went and I took my current book: Steven Johnson‘s ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’. This is his most recent but Steven is also well known as the author of ‘The Invention of Air’ and ‘Emergence’. The title is a bit disappointing, as it suggests a definitive source for something that is diffuse and virtually untraceable.

I started reading ‘Emergence’ a while back, where he tried to draw parallels between emergent systems like ant colonies, the brain, etc and the organisation of cities. I remember at the time that I thought that it was a bit of a stretch but more specifically, I didn’t see the value in the metaphor. Even if I could accept that there are similarities in the organisational architecture of cities and the systems he chose to compare them to, I don’t quite understand why those insights would be useful. There is so much we don’t know about the brain, and my guess is we know a bit more about cities, so comparing something relatively understood with something completely obscure seems counter-productive by nature. How does it help us make decisions about the city? How would it help decision-makers design services, engagement with citizens, reposition the economic profile of a city?

Dan mentioned this in his latest blogpost, and rightly (in my view) pointed out that cities are cultural rather than biological in nature, and therefore it is decision-making that shapes the city. And I don’t mean decision-making by bureaucrats only, but rather by all those involved in making decisions about the way they use and behave, appropriate and manage space in the city. I suppose an increasing shift towards crowd sourcing and more direct engagement with urban citizens can be perceived as emergent. But I would still it is a product of how we design a culture of decision-making. Anyway, I digress.

The book is presented as a ‘Natural History’ of innovation, an evolution of the processes and conditions that have brought innovation about. These have evolved to a large extent over the past 6 centuries as communication technologies reach more systematically larger networks of people more reliably. This starts with the printing press and the postal service but these days, we’re talking about hypertext and intelligent search engines such as Google. So there’s an evolution, that is for sure.

The examples Johnson chooses are informative, but somewhat repetitive and very anchored in science. It’s a minor point but I would argue that scientific innovation is relatively well documented (as scientists are the kind of people who would document that kind of thing, AND it’s inherent to the whole experiment process). It’s the innovation in other fields, social and cultural that really interest me.

The principles that organise this ‘natural history’ are convincing. Johnson speaks of innovation as the exploration of an adjacent possible, made visible through liquid networks, the nurturing over time of slow hunches, serendipity, a tolerance for error and iteration, and the application of the logic of one field of knowledge applied to another, or ‘expatation’. They’re all variations on a theme: how do you continually push the boundaries of knowledge? What are the circumstances that are most likely to enable the exploration of the edge?

Johnson concludes the book with a chapter where he categorises innovations into ‘types’  into four quadrants of a matrix. On the vertical axis, from individual to network, on the horizontal axis from market to non-market. The relative population of each quadrant evolved over time as transformative technology such as the printing press and the internet come into play but what Johnson is point to is that innovation is moving away from an individual endeavour to a network endeavour. And I think that I can empirically support that view.

Johnson, though, sees the market and non-market quadrants of network innovation as if these were mirror images of each other, one in the public sector and the other in the private sector. But my view is that non-market innovation as takes place in universities and academia more generally, doesn’t take place for the same reasons as market-based innovation does. Actually, they’re very different markets. Even though there is remuneration in the form of salaries to professors and research scholars in universities, the financial incentives for being involved in market-based innovation is off the charts really when compared to salaries. The innovation is happening for commercialisation, it’s its purpose. What that means is that market-based innovations are the commodity that is being traded, the value generation mechanism through which the likes of Apple and Microsoft make money. I contrast this with public-sector innovation as Johnson calls it, where innovation is the end goal, the pure intellectual enterprise of pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Sure, there is increasing evidence of industry and academia entering in partnerships to innovate but both parties are in it for different reasons. It’s the fundamental divide that separates the for-profit and non-profit world, and  each of these business models are designed for different outcomes.

The book ends on a potent idea: rather than thinking of the environments for innovation as a commons, a shared space for shared ownership of ideas, Johnson encourages to adopt the reef metaphor, as an ecosystem of hard work, incremental process, serendipitous connections but most importantly that new ideas built on the solid structure of previous innovations.

Overall, this was a good read, informative and more importantly, it flowed pretty well for a science book. I will leave you with the quote from the book that resonated most with me and that reads a bit like a manifesto for a way of life: ‘Chance favours the connected mind’ – I better keep reading and writing then.

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